Before COVID-19, I went to the store several times a week, orienting my cooking around what to cook rather than how to cook. One of the many things that quarantine brought to the surface in our household is the value of food — the immeasurable privilege of having access to fresh food, as well as the knowledge, confidence and ability to prepare it.
This point became clear a few weeks into COVID-19 quarantine when Gracie Schatz, founder of Heart of Willamette Cooking School, posted an invitation on Instagram for a free Zoom biscuit making class taught by a friend Benjamin Prescott. I was immediately intrigued.
Schatz is a pioneer in the local food scene, which the Heart of Willamette (HOW) Cooking School is changing. As a visionary project, HOW Cooking School is the culmination of years of work in the food industry; it also works to empower women in certain male-dominated spaces.
My partner, from Mississippi, continually vocalizes his anguish over the lack of a good cheddar biscuit. Early on in our relationship, after a few failed attempts, I went to the store, bought a box mix and pretended I made them from scratch.
Five years into our relationship, I still couldn’t make a worthy biscuit. So, I gathered the ingredients and joined approximately 20 other folks on Zoom to cook.
As we mixed the dough, I had my breakthrough moment when Prescott demonstrated how to tell if your dough was too dry or too wet. The tactile instruction was something I would have never gleaned from a recipe. In that messy moment, my hands caked with flour, I was exhilarated to learn how to really cook.
Though the food scene in Eugene has grown we lack spaces to learn and engage with food outside of the roles of consumer and producer.
In its second year, HOW offers a wide range of private and group cooking and skills classes. Previous courses include traditional Jewish cuisine, knife skills and whole animal butchering. The range of classes, which continues to grow, speaks to Schatz’s intention to empower and inspire home cooks and farmers with skills they can utilize every day. Her goal is to “teach people more than anything to be more present with their food. Cooking is not about recipes, it is about trusting your sensory abilities and traditions.”
With these guiding principles, Schatz curates courses that evoke sensory engagement and the fantastic possibilities of preparing a meal. This is exemplified in her passion for animal butchering that began during an internship at Tenuta di Spannocchia, a 1,100-acre organic farm in Tuscany.
Schatz’s knowledge grew in various positions, working and managing hyper-local butcher shops from The Fatted Calf in San Francisco to Newman’s Fish Market in Eugene. I was fortunate to witness Schatz in her element in February this year during a lamb butchering course for women. The course took place at Branch Road Farm in Cottage Grove, where the lambs were raised.
As a caveat, I have terrible knife skills and had little interest in animal butchering until I attended this class. What led me there was the feminist orientation. Despite consuming meat for most of my adult life, I am continually put off by the hyper-masculine culture I have experienced at meat counters.
For Schatz, convening butchering classes for women supports a more democractic experiential learning environment. An hour into the class the camaraderie was palpable — women cheered and helped one another along.
Online or in person, Schatz is a natural teacher gifted with the ability to convene spaces that foster connection and beauty. Technical instruction aside, what I truly took away from her class was seeing a whole animal and the craft of butchering through her eyes. With awe, curiosity and reverence, she continually invited us to connect with the beauty of the animal. When choices of how to make cuts or obstacles arose she prompted the group to “adapt to what the animal is telling you.”
Schatz explained how to maneuver with the saw in choreography with the animal. My newfound appreciation for the art of butchering was amplified by Schatz’s extensive knowledge of how to access and cook the most nutritious parts of the animal.
At the end of the class, we sat down to a family-style Mediterranean banquet showcasing lamb shanks the class had produced. After attending the class, I was reminded that when you eat something amazing, it is not just the food you are responding to but the environment, the community and the numerous practices that go into the production of the meal.
Two weeks later, I noticed Schatz was offering “whole chicken butchering,” where each part of the chicken is prepared for the closing meal, but the class was canceled when social distancing measures due to COVID-19 were enacted.
During the pandemic, the Heart of Willamette Cooking School adapted, and Schatz shifted to teaching group and private classes on Zoom.
A recent highlight she shared was hosting a class for a family that has been estranged since COVID-19 began. Each family member purchased ingredients from the list Schatz provided, and they cooked together and shared a meal.
Additionally she has developed a subscription program through Patreon with packages that range from $5 to $25 a month and include discounted prices for classes. Moving forward, her goal is to establish a permanent location to build a dynamic community based cooking school.
As the quarantine loosens, our relationship to food and the industry that produces it will never be the same. There could be no better time for those new to cooking or seasoned home chefs to advance their skills.
For more information, visit HowCookingSchool.com. Group classes on Zoom are $35 per person and private classes are $150. Sliding scale is available for folks with financial constraints.